The arts industry, without question, is one of the hardest-hit industries in the wake of the global pandemic. Yet even as people turned ever more towards the arts for comfort, solace and entertainment, the arts struggled to stay afloat. 

Thousands of artists and employees in the arts found themselves with no work-- for if people cannot gather outside to experience the magic of the arts, how will artists now bring this same magic to the millions now stuck at home?

As the pandemic wore on, world-renowned theatre companies have shuttered, or are under threat of shutting down permanently, including William Shakespeare’s legendary Globe theatre in London, and even performances like the Cirque du Soleil have filed for bankruptcy. 

Closer to home, Singapore’s art scene was not spared these tough times. For the past six months, as the theatre doors remained closed, there has been no income for hundreds of freelance actors, designers and artists in Singapore.

However, Gaurav Kripalani, arts doyen, director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Singapore International Festival of Arts (2020) festival director, is undeterred. Since circuit breaker, Kripalani and the folks at SRT have not sat idle. 

Founded in 1993, the SRT has produced some of the most memorable arts events in Singapore and across Asia. In addition to its repertoire of original musicals like Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress, the company has produced a number of critically acclaimed plays that include ART, The Pillowman and God of Carnage. 

SRT was also the first Singaporean theatre company on Broadway in 1998 as Associate Producer of Golden Child, which went from Singapore to New York and earned three Tony Award nominations. 

“Most, if not all, of the people I know have suffered some sort of element of “flight or fight” syndrome. There are days you wake up and you just want to stay in bed all day and not face the world,” Kripalani tells Options. “But I know the SRT is one of the largest arts companies in Singapore and we have to lead by example. We have a responsibility to our 25 staff, and a responsibility to the hundreds of freelance actors, designers, and artists who depend on us to produce shows. We have a responsibility to our sponsors, and most of all, to our audience.”

He is, in fact, deeply optimistic about the arts’ ability to innovate and pivot in these circumstances. “[That responsibility] has fueled us to say we are going to make sure the arts stay top of mind for everyone.” 

This does not mean some big changes haven’t happened. 

“We had a big season planned last year. We were going to do Shakespeare in the Park, the LKY Musical, we were even going to bring in National Theatre’s ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’ again,” Kripalani shares. “But with the uncertainty of what audience sizes can be, we simply could not risk having these big productions again. So we changed our season. We are going to do four two-person shows in our venue and they will be incredibly powerful plays. But it is important that we keep producing, and we will move the big shows to 2022.”

Kripalani is upfront about the huge losses that the SRT (and all theatre companies, too) have endured this year. SRT had to cancel its production of the National Theatre’s critically-acclaimed War Horse. Added to that a total dearth of income, and things are truly hard. 

However, Kripalani is undeterred. “I'm very proud of the team. Because our team has really rallied and learned to produce in new ways. I'm very proud of being able to have provided work to over 80 freelance artists,” he adds.

Innovation will be the real game-changer for the year ahead. In Kripalani’s capacity as SIFA festival director, one way they will seek to transform is to look for artists who are using technology to serve the arts in a manner that engages the audience. 

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“I feel that by next May, we will be very fatigued to watch content online-- we already are,” he says. “And once theatres re-open, it will be harder to get people log in to view content. And with travel still not happening, touring would not be possible.”

“As such, these artists are innovating. They are coming up with clever ways of doing their shows, which allows them to connect, interact, and talk to audiences, from wherever they are.” This, he feels, is in itself an empowering way to overcome the hurdles these artists have had to face.
 
Moreover, the SRT have produced a whole host of virtual arts events, engaging audiences in entirely new and unique ways. 

This includes the ‘The Coronalogues – What’s Your Silver Lining?’ a series of short video submissions based around the theme ‘Silver Linings’; a month-long, fully-virtual TLC Children’s Festival from September to October, featuring story-telling sessions, activities and more for children; and most significantly, the upcoming live production of ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’, based on the best-selling book by Mitch Albom. 

And for the first time, the SRT has also collaborated with Pangdemonium and WILD RICE to produce The Pitch, a tongue-in-cheek yet ultimately poignant short film on these three theatre companies as they struggle to make art in a time when the curtains have fallen, possibly for a very long a time. It’s a smart move, one which could open up the doors to many more opportunities in the future.

Even as the three companies have always had friendly competition, the pandemic has brought them to closer collaboration. “It has really brought us closer together. We co-produced a show for the first time ever, and we cross-promote each other’s shows… it’s become a support group. We have Zoom drinks every week and it allows us to moan and groan and vent, but it also allows us to strategise collectively.”

For Kripalani, leadership in a time of crisis, more than ever, is to be a cheerleader. “My job has always been to be sort of the cheerleader and it’s now so more than ever. I am an optimist. And I learnt a lot,” he adds. “When this Covid thing started, some of our staff rallied very quickly, but some struggled a lot, emotionally. And where I had to personally adapt was to appreciate that not everyone can run at the same speed; and to make sure we were there for each other.”

Ultimately, both leading the way to change, and also changing the way they lead, is what Kripalani feels will help the industry get through these tough times. 

“There are two things which are fueling me; the first being that this is the greatest challenge the arts has ever faced. I have no doubt we will get through it; and the only way to deal with it in my head, is that we’re making history. We can survive this, we can survive anything,” says Kripalani. 

“And with every challenge we face in the future, I know we can turn to our team and say ‘it was nowhere near as bad as Covid’. I know we’re making history and that’s kind of an adrenaline rush.”